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The Learning Picture and The LOA Way

12 Jul

We held the second successful incarnation of the Learning Organization Academy this week.  A second wave of feedback from our participants and speakers is coming in. More than ever I’m reconfirmed in my sense that LOA (as we call it) is a wonderful, necessary, unusual professional development program. What exactly do we do there? Here’s what I think: we try to paint a picture of what a learning culture looks like, and we try to empower people to seek that culture, using our “way.”

The Learning Picture

What does a learning culture look or feel like?  It’s seeing people not as individual units but as a complex adaptive system, a kind of hyper-complexity of interconnectedness interwoven with a sense–an ethical call–that the parts and the connections between the parts and the overall system can and should continuously improve, develop, evolve, adapt, become more capable, understand more, see more, be more, do better, do more good.

It’s a feeling you’re with people who perceive you deeply and care about your development. It’s chatter, it’s movement, it’s connectedness. It’s a fascination with information or idea flow and with sharing and with perspectives. It’s information residing in between and among people. It’s a suspension of the individual and the group. It’s a hyper-individualism suspended in a bionic group. It’s icky and wonderful and true and healing and difficult to hear and necessary and life-changing like support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous. But it’s also intellectually challenging, mind-blowing, inspiring, visionary, like great keynotes or Ted Talks or moments of wonderful brainstorms or getting, say, Spinoza for the first time. It’s a kind of platonic intimacy. It’s also mindful, calm, reflective, consolidating, simplifying, like the presence of a great meditation teacher.

It’s not superficially happy, as in the avoidance of bad feelings from fear of them; because it involves a desire to improve, it requires a constant grappling with discomfort. Because it’s learning, it involves real, meaningful, true feedback. You’re supported in the grappling, though. It asks you to re-evaluate or put in context a bunch of existing structures you’ve absorbed and perhaps not really considered, that we use to make sense of the work world (and life), like production, power, authority, efficiency, limits, boundaries, success, rules, norms, the bottom line.

It’s a delight in the awareness of yourself improving, as you had when you were a kid, and a happiness in being able to help people improve, as you have when you are a parent or a teacher or a coach. Mixed with the joy of doing what you love or the simple wonder of perceiving the natural world. All this with the kind of sense of collective achievement you would have from, say, working on the crew of a winning America’s Cup yacht.  It’s Maslow’s idea of a society of self-actualized people, plus the feel of the classroom in Alfie Kohn, plus the lab-like discovery in Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas, plus the fascination and love and being-with-people that the humanistic psychologist Carl Rodgers models, plus the mindfulness of the Buddha, plus the curiosity and intellectual stimulation of, say, Richard Feynman. Plus the fun of learning to whistle. Plus the crinkly-eyed humor of a whimsical anecdote. It’s learning and being with people the way you wish you could.

The LOA Way

So that’s the picture. So how do we help people get there? What’s our “way?” Well, we do share some tips, tricks, techniques, approaches, projects, perspectives. But I think the main part of what we do is not so much to give technological or instrumental advice or answers but to model or encourage a way of being or a disposition or an attitude.

This didn’t quite come to me until I reviewed the website of another professional development program shortly after LOA had ended. This program struck me as embodying a kind of industrial-masculine-skills-fixed-knowledge-surgical-breathless-mechanical approach. It was about learning discrete things and applying them. Cause and effect. Focused-intellectual-logical-IQ stuff. Intensely individual. Maybe I picked up a sense of underlying anger or conviction or intensity. It was a closing trap. Fixing, fixing, fixing. Driving. Mechanical.

The LOA way is the opposite. It’s perhaps more feminine, organic, slow.  It’s about perception, appreciation, spaciousness, and joy.  It’s about the context, replacing the parts in the whole, resolving dualities, healing divisions, not rushing to solutions, yet embracing spontaneity, thinking, being mindful, sensing, sensing, doing less, questioning certitude, imaging other possibilities, sloughing off a veneer of sophistication or adulthood or responsibility for a cultivated youthfulness or naiveté. It’s perhaps primarily about seeing and understanding the richness and beauty of things as they are as much as it is about gentling nudging them along.

Copying, Synergy, and the Test Kitchen

30 Jun

I’m thinking about another entry in Maslow’s Eupsychian Management, “Synergic versus Antisynergic Doctrine.”

Here Maslow beings by exploring two ways of seeing availability of resources: as limited and as unlimited or regenerating.  In the general, dog-eat-dog world of life or the office, (or in Theory X, as Maslow would say), we see things as limited, so we have to grab what we can get and do whatever we can to keep others from grabbing it back. The problems with this are fairly obvious in general, but it’s particularly problematic when the “limited” way of thinking is wrongly extended to things which when shared generate more of themselves in an ever-increasing way. Good things, like ideas, knowledge, psychological well-being.

Science, for instance, only works when ideas and learnings and experiments are shared. Of course, that is the whole idea of science. Everyone can build on each other’s experiences in an ever-increasing virtuous circle. The times when we try to limit knowledge–like to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets, for instance–hurt the “us” more than it hurts the “them,” because the us don’t benefit from the virtuous cycle of the knowledge percolating through the aquifer of our collective thought. And the them probably find their way to the information in any event.

To share knowledge is to generate more knowledge; and that’s a “synergic” way of looking at things, from a generative perspective rather than a perspective of limitation. To think “I need to hide the secret in the safe,” that’s “anti-synergic.”

Anti-synergic thinking shows a confusion of the product with the more complex and more beautiful and more fleeting and more valuable and less reproducible people-thought-action-system (my words) that produced it. Ideas in business are a good example. Of course it’s common to develop a product and then want to keep the stuff we learned while developing it secret so our competitors can’t redo it and thus steal our potential earnings and glory, etc.

But you can look at things differently. Take the voltmeter from Nonlinear Systems (Maslow’s example). Nonlinear invented the voltmeter, apparently, and could have kept how to make it secret, but they didn’t. Allan Kay, the leader, pointed out that anyone could copy the voltmeter, but they couldn’t as easily copy the complex system that developed it.

About that “system.” For Maslow, it seems, this system consists of three key parts: a creative disposition, a commitment to iterate, and an ability to perceive things in their truth, regardless of predispositions.  (I guess a fourth necessary part that goes without saying is that the system needs to have people in it). These three, or four, things make a process or flow, a virtuous circle–a thing half ceremony, half discovery, have foundry–from which the particular product is but a kind of snapshot or a thrown-off snakeskin, only marking where things were at a certain point.

Someone can copy the snakeskin, but it would be hard to copy the “snake,” the fluid, creative, productive, self-corrective, honestly-perceiving ecosystem that gave it birth.  And if you did recreate the snake, or Nonlinear Systems, that would be good in any event, because you’d be bringing a “Theory Y,” healing, self-affirming, goodness-making, not-believing-in-limitations, social machine into being, and that would have all sorts of positive effects on the lives of the people that came into contact with it. And your new Nonlinear Systems would probably get along OK with the Old Nonlinear Systems, since good organizations would of course get along with good organizations. You would probably form a system between you of a higher order of mind-process-production that couldn’t have been conceived until then.

The flow of the creative-iterative-perceptive system feels like it has parts in it of my idea of the information “sluice;” but it also contains a built-in doing component (the “foundry,” per me, above), because you’re making things. It feels akin to Basadur’s Creative Problem Solving process, which says an idea is not creative if it’s not implemented. But it’s also meta. I take Basadur’s CPS as a kind of subroutine; whereas the kind of organization or process Maslow is talking here about feels more like a superordinate way of going about things. One that might contain within its parts both synergic and anti-synergic subroutines.

I should stress the observation part. I added it; Maslow doesn’t break it out as such in this entry, but it pops up in others. And it resonates. Perhaps the most important part of this creative synergic flow is the ability to look at yourself or your process with Bergsonian pure perception, or with Maslow’s B-cognition. Objectively and lovingly and without predetermined ideas, but rather seeing the context for the context, the product for the product. Not clouded by a desire for the thing to be good, or for the struggle to be over so that you can coast, or for a desire to defeat your enemies, but just in itself. This ability to step out of yourself would seem crucial to generating the kind of creative ideas that would fuel iterative improvement.

For the record, the idea of sharing things in order to have more of them, for Maslow, works for other things we often assume we have to hoard in work or in life: power and love being two.  He refers to Linkert’s idea (in New Patterns of Management) of the “influence pie:” where managers allowed their reports to have more influence and suddenly discovered they themselves (the managers) had more, too.

As an aside, cooking shows are connected to this. You can watch the person make a dish and know how to make that dish, but you won’t learn much about the life of their kitchen, or how they relate to food, and what sparks new dish ideas, and how they refine things, and how they get feedback. You might mistakenly focus on sourcing ingredients and getting the right pot and wake up to find yourself in a antisynergic mode. When it’s not about the particular ingredient or pot or outcome, but about the culture hidden behind and among those things. Even America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t really teach you how to have your own test kitchen.  Which is sad because I think a synergic life would be a kind of continual test kitchen.

On “The Very Superior Boss”

24 Jun

“The Very Superior Boss” is an entry in Abraham Maslow’s Eupsychian Management: A Journal (1965, Richard D. Irwin and The Dorsey Press)In it, Maslow doesn’t enumerate the characteristics of superiority, instead he focuses on the strife-filled relationship between the high-functioning leader and the rest of her team.

Maslow sees problems when someone who already knows or can quickly find the answer is thrown in with people who need to work out the answer through the various slow processes of communication, postulation, trial, and error. On the one hand, the business won’t make speedy decisions and the manager will herself suffer the excruciating pains of impatience and self-suppression if she waits for people to figure things out.  On the other hand, she will breed resentment and render her staff less capable than they are if she always tells them the answer, and she won’t ultimately be preparing them to lead themselves (or to live in a post-her world).  A third, stranger problem arises from an attempt to reconcile the first two–to artificially speed up the team’s processing by a kind of trickery, making it seem like they’ve solved the problem when really the leader has been perhaps not-so-subtly putting words and thoughts into their minds and mouths the whole time.

Another way to view the tension, says Maslow, is as between short-term results and long-term growth.  If the organization needs to “last past the death of the supervisor,” says he, “then greater patience is required and greater participative management, more explanations, more giving out of facts, more discussion of the facts and common agreement upon the conclusions.”  And he notes, “this is the only way to train good managers and good leaders in the long run” (145).  

The problem is similar to the one between beautiful or gifted parents face: having to stop being beautiful and gifted themselves to let their children develop.  Maslow associates it as well with the problem all creative children have in general: feeling “apart” from others; and in this way he suggests the problem is not just about a power-struggle, but also arises from basic differences of perspective or cognitive processing.  Important in his view of the tension is the fact that people often dislike or suspect intelligent or gifted people, even when these people are their best leaders; similarly, insecurity leads people to seek, and like, leaders who give clear and consistent answers, whether or not this consistency is related to intelligence or to pathology.

As a partial solution, Maslow calls for a shift of focus from the self of the leader to the situational context: asking what sort of decision-making or development is necessary to the group, and then integrating the related style of leadership. Which might very well mean giving people leaders they don’t particularly like.  As another partial solution, he suggests, interestingly, that the superior boss might just separate herself from the team, in order to let the team figure out how to solve problems on its own.

Ultimately, though, the tension is irresolvable:

This is of course, an extremely difficult problem, a profoundly human and existential problem, which in truth has no good solution even in theory. The fact is that great superiority is unjust, undeserved, and that people can and do resent it . . . . I don’t know of any good solution to this situation which demands honesty but in which honesty and truth must necessarily hurt.  (148)

The quote above might not leave you feeling great, but the idea that a slight reorientation of our focus–from “leader” to “context”–a reinsertion of the separate element into the soothing suspension–holds the potential of reducing some of the pain of the tension between us and others–that’s helpful and healing.  We might decrease the pain a little more by thinking of the separating “superiority” not so much as the boss’ intrinsic better-ness but more that she is at a particular place on one of many development tracks–and it just so happens that she is further along than us on that track, but nothing prevents us from moving in that direction, or in being further along than she in some other area.

Of course a person able to see things through B-Cognition would breathe the universal context, and would be OK with someone else’s betterness, in fact would appreciate it, particularly if it emerged clearly from their essence, but not many of us do that.

In any event, everyone can probably connect with this conundrum. I imagine we’ve all seen the three problematic aspects Maslow mentions, from both sides, too.  As both the person with the answer and the person without the answer at some point, in some way, whether the “superiority” be related to work-based problem-solving; experience, skills, or performance of some kind; or something more like emotional stability, comfort with ambiguity, and so on. Who hasn’t been in a situation where she or he had to bite their tongue while others slowly processed something? And who hasn’t discovered the disheartening feeling associated with being asked questions when you know the questioner already has a particular answer in mind. Of course, much of education traditionally has engendered this feeling.  Perhaps the third, or “trickery” experience is less common, but I have been guilty of it myself–and I can support Maslow when he says it never works.

We probably identify, as well, with the problem of seeking an “all-knowingness,” or a sense of conviction and consistency, in our leaders, because we’re scared or nervous in some way, when what might do us better is a little bit of ambiguity, consideration of multiple perspectives, some emotional and intellectual struggle of our own. Trying something without firm conviction now and then.

Finally, the suggestion that benign superior bosses, who see themselves as a blockage in their team’s development, might simply leave now and then is beautify in its simplicity, and I’ve known leaders who I think have done this well, though I suspect many leaders would scratch their heads at the idea.  “I’m not leading if I’m not there, I need to see what they’re doing if I am to control it, etc.,” they might say.  On the other hand, as Maslow points out, healthy people do not exhibit the need to control other people.

Being Creative Together

12 Jun

Have just read Min Basadur’s article “Leading others to thinking innovatively together: Creative leadership,” in The Leadership Quarterly 15 (2004). It’s interesting!

Basadur suggests that the big task before all of us in this global, fluid, disruptive age is to manage our organizations for adaptability rather than for efficiency (the traditional focus). Adaptability requires being creative together. We’re not good at being creative together, however; says he: “the attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary for creative thinking are underdeveloped in many people” (106).

There is fortunately an easy-to-understand creativity life-cycle or process that’s made of four stages, each with its own kind of thinking, and people, it seems, orient to one of these stages by preference (111). The stages are Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing (112). (Which, I note, seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the topic.)

The problem is that, not knowing the different phases of creation, nor their preference for one or the other, people generally jumble all the phases together, achieve naught, and annoy each other.

Basadur describes the kind of meeting this leads to as “undisciplined discussions where facts, ideas, points of veiw, evaluations, action steps, and new problems are interjected randomly” (110). The person oriented to optimize, which calls for “rational, systematic, and orderly analysis” of a project-moving-towards-implementation, for instance, is not open to the incomplete and weird ideas unleashed by the person oriented towards generation (I have that orientation, for the record), who uses engagement with the world, emotions, empathy, and other unpredictable things to concoct “problems, opportunities, and projects that might be worth solving” (112, emphasis mine).  This of course, leads to the famous “how to kill ideas” situation, which Basadur describes as an insufficiency in the basic creativity-thinking skills of “deferring judgment, keeping an open mind, and thinking divergently” (106).

On a side note, Basadur aligns with Chris Argyris in seeing defensive reasoning as another block to creativity: people, says Basadur, “wait for others to find problems for them to solve,” (108); avoid “unsolvable” or cross-functional problems (108); desire to be seen as “practical and economical above all things,” and thereby tend to shut down strange new ideas (106); and “get mired in arguments about functional issues to protect their ‘turf'” (110)–all different ways of prioritizing political safety over productive thinking and creativity. Not good in an age of change.

The way to slash through all this is simply to help people with process.  A leader who knows the phases of creation can act as a creative “process coach” (111) making sure the group knows and honors the phase they’re in and uses and appreciates the particular cognitive skills the phase requires (106).  A good process-focused leader can even go so far as to predict the kinds of help individuals would need based on their orientation, and be prepared to supply that. Such a leader helps the strong optimizer, for instance, “discover new problems and facts.” In my own case, my creatively-oriented leader would help me (the generator) “convince others of the value of [my] ideas and push [me] to act on them” (116).

Importantly, Basadur notes that the highest-performing teams include a representative mixture of people orienting to the four phases of creation (115). But he also notes that people tend to gravitate towards people of like orientation, such that work teams and even professions tend to be made up of one dominant orientation (117). AND he notes that people report higher satisfaction in teams where they’re with birds of a feather (115). So there’s some natural resistance to be overcome: the leader has to consciously combine people with different orientations and help them work together; the diverse team “may experience more frustration initially” but “will achieve more breakthrough results as they learn to mesh their styles” (117).

There are some work-related processes that probably don’t fall under creation (maintenance of existing functions), but these seem less important now than in static environments of years past; Basadur’s model seems helpful for a wide breath of challenges we face at work, and should make up part of any workplace’s ethos. Thinking about the normal flow of creative–or cognitive–process  in the development of ideas and initiatives, and seeing our own orientation towards phases within that process seems particularly helpful.

9 Kinds of Things to Do

16 May

Have you ever wondered what sorts of things you should do in your job?

Folks in my work team did, and we came up with a draft list of nine kinds of things, which I share here because I like them, with no attempt at prioritization. We used them when we worked on our individual plans for the year, and I think they helped us think of planning an activity or two we might otherwise not have thought of or might otherwise just not have planned. We’re librarians and technologists in a merged library-I.T. department in a university, but I think these nine probably work in other contexts. My comments are interwoven.

  1. Learning About Your Community. How we interact with, engage in, learn about the people among whom we do our work. Examples: read faculty scholarship, sit in on classes, interview students, help out in a lab. Dave’s thought: clearly if you don’t know the people you’re serving something is amiss, but too often we don’t actually plan to know them. Learning takes work, though, so we shouldn’t leave it to chance.
  2. Intervening in Your Community. Concrete projects we undertake, or problems we tackle, to improve the world. Examples: help teach a class, engage in primary research, organize a learning group, find new information resources for people, create a how-to video, organize a conference. Dave’s thought: “intervention” has some kooky connotations, but I like the empowering feeling of thinking of your work as being there to help the world around you, to improve, to fix, to heal, not just to be work, dreary, drudgery, clock-in and clock-out stuff.
  3. Engaging in Inter-institutional Activities. How we collaborate and partner with and learn from peer institutions facing similar challenges. Examples: collaborative collection development, volunteering in professional organizations, visiting local schools & asking questions. Dave’s thought: collaborating with other places facing the same challenges you face takes time and is a lot of work, but pays huge dividends.
  4. Knowing Your Resources & Services. How we keep abreast of and contribute to the provision of our own departmental resources and services. Examples: select journals, evaluate e-resources, contribute in a major service roll-out, identify & vet problems in service provision, find an answer to user’s problem no matter what it is. Dave’s thought: here’s one of the ones you would expect to be on the list; I like that it’s described as “keeping abreast” (of a thing that evolves) as opposed to, say, mastering a static thing (which is not as much fun).
  5. Growing & Learning. How we think about who we want to become and how we organize ourselves to move towards it. Examples: master GIS, become a teacher, get better at meeting facilitation, learn to video-edit & produce a film. Dave’s thought: if you don’t get to ask yourself thoughts like “how can I grow, what do I want to become, how do I get there,” and then get the chance to do a thing or two in that line, why would you want to be involved in an organization?  Yikes.
  6. Building “Identity” Skills. How we define and maintain and grow our special, unique, highly-needed skill area(s). Examples: GIS skills, data curation, business resources, statistics, data visualization, ethnographies, visual design, pedagogy, assessment. Dave’s thought: everybody needs to have their special thing that’s valued and important and hard to acquire, or it just doesn’t seem like a team can function.
  7. Reporting. How we tell people what we’re up to, how we feed our knowledge back into the community, how we help people learn from what we’re doing. Examples: blog, written reports, verbal presentations at staff or departmental meetings, etc. Dave’s thought: I love this one: feedback is key to learning and improvement, right? Then we’re essentially obliged to share information on what we’re doing, knowing, thinking, learning with our community. So it can grow. Secret knowledge isn’t going to help the world much.
  8. Administering & Raising Morale. What we do that keeps the work team running and/or helps establish a culture of trust, fun, respect, joy. Examples: facilitate team meetings, share knowledge, organize parties, resolve work-flow issues, propose new policies. Dave’s thought: basically everyone should expect to contribute something in this area, if for no other reason than at least they’ll be more supportive when it’s someone else running the meeting.
  9. Being Strategic. How we contribute to decisions about what activities to prioritize. Examples: brainstorming and strategic planning meetings, scans of the landscape. Dave’s thought: it’s the old Frye Institute’s “Chin Up” message: no matter your role, you need to stick your head up out of the cubicle and see what’s going on now and then.

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25 Aug

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